Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist who specializes in helping clients deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.
Amelia and Danny sat on my couch and, as I listened, described an issue that I often find myself trying to help couples with: expressing emotion. And for Amelia and Danny, like most couples, emotional expression comes easily for one person but not for the other.
Amelia has a chronic condition. She is on a strict medication and self-care regimen. She has good days and she has some not-so-good days. This isn’t easy for her, to say the least. Amelia would be the first to say that Danny has been a solid, reliable partner. He does the lion’s share of the chores around the house. He often accompanies her to her doctor appointments. He checks in frequently on days when Amelia isn’t feeling so well.
Having said that …
Amelia often feels disappointed with how Danny responds when she talks about her emotions. “I know you love me, Danny,” she said to him. “But you seem so clinical when I get emotional. I talk about how sad or scared I am and you kind of look away. You have even cut me off with a question about whether I took my medication, or if I have been pushing myself too hard. It makes me feel like my emotions are annoying to you.”
Danny looked uncomfortable as Amelia said this. I suspect this is how he often appears when she is talking about her feelings. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “I’m glad you know I love you and care about you. But I’m not so good with emotions. I don’t know what to say. I didn’t realize my discomfort is that noticeable.”
And then they both looked toward me. “What can we do about this?”
Expressing emotions can be hard. How about giving each other a hand?
What about you? Do you sometimes, or often, feel like your partner is “emotionally challenged”? Leaving you feeling like your emotions aren’t acknowledged or respected? Or has your partner expressed their disappointment about your lack of emotions?
I gave both Amelia and Danny some advice.
First, here’s what I said to Amelia:
Be careful about making assumptions. Just because someone doesn’t seem to be emotionally connecting with you doesn’t mean they don’t care. As Danny said about himself, your partner may simply be at a loss for words.
Some reassurance may be needed. Sure, if you need emotional support, then you shouldn’t also have to be figuring out how to reassure your partner. But keep in mind that your partner may be experiencing some helplessness—knowing you’re hurting and thinking they should say something to make you feel better. You can help them to help you by saying something like, “I don’t need you to fix the way I feel. I just need you to listen.” You might be surprised at how much more relaxed and receptive your partner becomes after hearing these words.
Ask whether your partner needs any clarification. Don’t forget that you may have upped the volume on your emotional reactions beyond what the situation might actually call for. Your partner may, as a result, be alarmed and assume something more serious is going on. Or, your partner may not understand what’s behind how you’re feeling and be concerned they are somehow the cause. So it might help to check in with your partner: “Does it make sense to you why I am so upset?” Or, “Do you need me to explain why I feel so emotional about this?”
Be specific about what your partner can do to help. Help yourself and help your partner by letting them know what you need. Is it just to listen? Would you feel better if they did something for you, like took a walk with you or made dinner? Is there something they are doing, or not doing, that is contributing to the way you feel? Without being accusatory, give your partner some guidance. “It could really make me feel better if you would try to …” After all, your partner isn’t a mind reader, any more than you are.
Accept your partner’s limitations. And have multiple sources for support. Let’s face it, some people are better at being emotionally supportive than others. If you have a partner that plain isn’t so comfortable with strong emotions, the best approach is to accept where they can help and where they can’t. Broaden your support team to include friends and family members who can also step in and be there for you emotionally when you need a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on.
The advice I gave Danny is pretty much the flip side of the advice I gave to Amelia:
Ask questions. Your partner will appreciate this. “How are you feeling?” is a good door-opener. It shows you are concerned and want to give them an opportunity to talk. Ask for clarification if there is something you don’t understand. By the way, here’s the most important question: “How can I help?”
Listen. Your partner may just need you to listen while they talk about their feelings. It’s not always easy to hear someone describing strong emotions, or to vent. But your willingness to be present and be a listening ear can help your partner to feel supported. You may even find that your partner is able to sort out what’s bothering them while you provide a needed sounding board.
Be open to your own emotions. Your partner’s expression of their emotions will most likely bring up some uncomfortable emotions in you. Fear, for example. Or anger. And helplessness. Don’t fight your own emotional reactions. As feeling come up for you, let yourself feel them.
Practice using feeling words. What your partner assumes to be your lack of emotion may instead be your own discomfort in describing your feelings. Every day, make it a habit to talk to your partner about emotions as they come up—both positive and negative emotions. You can start by describing emotions you experienced during the work day: “I felt really happy this morning when …” Or, “The traffic on the drive home really made me frustrated.” Take baby steps at first. As you get more comfortable, when your partner is expressing their emotions you’ll be more comfortable describing your reactions: “I feel really sad for you right now,” or, “I can feel how angry you are. I feel angry with you.” That’s call empathy.
Just be there. That’s your number one job. It supersedes even the most eloquent of responses that you might come up with. Keep this as your focus and you’ll be that much more able to provide your partner with the support they need.
You and your partner. Emotional support is an important factor in your overall wellness as individuals and as a couple. Learning to communicate about emotions is a journey. Be patient with each other. Always.
What have you learned about expressing emotions with your partner? Add a comment below to share your experience and advice.